When women peacebuilders working in local communities wanted to bring in men to participate in gender-sensitive conflict resolution, no one listened at first, said Isabelle Geuskens, Executive Director of the Women Peacemakers Program. “We were not really listening, because we felt women’s empowerment is about women!” But, she said, the women were concerned that “the men are dismissing [UN resolution] 1325 and gender as a women’s issue.”
“And men are still not understanding the gendered nature of violence and armed conflict,” she said. “So, we started thinking about how can we get more men engaged. We started looking more deeply at the gendered nature of violence, and how masculinity plays a role in this. So, it’s really through the call from women that we started designing what could ‘engaging men’ mean. But also, what does a gender perspective on war and peace from a masculinities perspective look like?”
Ms. Geuskens said women peacebuilders are often able to avoid thinking in terms of win-or-lose. “They will go more easily into win-win,” she said. “[They] don’t see compromising as a failure,” though she added that not all women bring in a new perspective.
But those who do, she said, “will not separate [peacebuilding] from everyday life issues. So, they will look at the economic factors. They will look at the political factors, of course. But also, do they have access to healthcare?”
However, Ms. Geuskens said good peacebuilding can cut across gender. “I have to say, people come with their hearts, their minds, their skills. They come with commitment. There are difficult conversations, but usually people are quite constructive, and I’ve seen empowerment happen on both sides… I think human beings tend to be quite alike, if we give them the chance to be.”
About UN resolution 1325, which requires parties in a conflict to respect women’s rights and to support their participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction, she said, “Implementation is very difficult, because I think we tend to look at change in a very instrumental way. We tend to want to make boxes that we can tick to add more women. But changing the cultures—I’m not just talking cultures in countries of conflict, but actually the cultures all over the world and in institutions that make decisions about war and peace. They haven’t fundamentally changed.”
“In the end, 1325 I feel is about more than adding women. It’s about the practice and working towards ending wars. And that is about asking critical questions about patriarchy and the way we are dealing with violent conflict.”
The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I’m here today with Isabelle Geuskens, Executive Director of the Women Peacemakers Program in The Hague. Since 2002, the Women Peacemakers Program has provided non-violence training to 1300 people in over 24 countries, from Afghanistan to Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a focus on including women and men in their work toward gender-sensitive peacebuilding.
In addition to this work with peacebuilders around the world, Isabelle is involved in monitoring developments around the Security Council’s women, peace and security resolutions and their global implementation.
Isabelle, you’ve said that women are among the first to cross the lines between divided communities. From your extensive work with women peacemakers, what do women add to peace processes in communities and on the national level?
Isabelle Geuskens: First of all, women bring a different perspective. Not always, because women can be patriarchal as well, but many women peace activists don’t think necessarily in “win or lose.” They will go more easily into win-win. [They] don’t see compromising as a failure. I’m not saying here, now, that women are natural peacemakers, born like that, but I think there is something in women’s socialization process that has contributed to these capacities in women. I think that could also be something for men, because it’s obviously related to socialization.
What we’ve seen in our programs is that women have a much broader concept of what peace and security is. They will not separate it from everyday life issues. So, they will look at the economic factors, they will look at the political factors, of course. But also, do they have access to healthcare? They might even not distinguish so much between what’s happening in a so-called peaceful country… they make the link between what happens to them in a peaceful country and conflict countries— so-called [peaceful], because women do experience domestic violence in peaceful countries. Women are afraid to walk the streets at night. So, I think women bring a whole different definition of what peace and security is.
Women are often not amongst the highest ranks, [are] making decisions about war. That also means that often they have less to gain from it. So, they merely feel the negative consequences and what they’re losing out. Also, because of the socialization process, [women are] taking care of the families, taking care of the communities, [they] reach out more, think in solutions, and start working with other women, possibly even from the other community to solve the conflict because they have a big stake in creating peace and having peace again. There’s just not so much to gain for them.
AOS: Can you tell us more about the women peacemakers program and your work towards gender-sensitive peacebuilding?
IG: We started in ’97, as a program of IFOR (International Fellowship of Reconciliation). And we were created because, within the peace movement, IFOR was an older peace movement, existing for 100 years. There were issues being raised by the women activists, saying women need to have more of a leadership role within the peace movement. Women should also have space to discuss what so-called “women’s issues” are, and how this relates to peaceful societies. So, the whole issue of women’s rights and women’s experiences of violence should also be part of the peace agenda.
This is how we started, focusing on merely working with women: capacity building programs on women’s rights; what is gender sensitive peacebuilding; active nonviolence; bringing women together from different regions so they could exchange what was happening to them, strategize; documenting what was happening—so making sure that women’s histories are being recorded. And we also did trainings for peace organizations on why a gender perspective is so important for their work, to be more effective peacebuilders.
AOS: And your program has also placed the issue of masculinities and male participation in gender-sensitive conflict resolution at the center of its efforts. Why is this important, and what have been the biggest challenges?
IG: I think it’s key that this has been brought forward by women themselves. I also have to admit that the first years when we were hearing this, we were not really listening, because we felt women’s empowerment is about women! And women were saying no, it’s great, and we are organizing, and we are having the confidence in mobilizing, but the men are dismissing 1325 and gender as a women’s issue. And men are still not understanding the gendered nature of violence and armed conflict.
So, from that we started thinking about how can we get more men engaged. We started looking more deeply at the gendered nature of violence, and how masculinity plays a role in this. So, it’s really through the call from women that we started designing what could engaging men mean. But also, what does a gender perspective on war and peace from a masculinities perspective look like?
The challenges are that we felt a big pressure of accountability. Of course, we are accountable to the women’s movement. We didn’t want to open up Pandora’s box, where we start focusing on men, and suddenly this becomes a trend, and men would take over the space that women are still fighting for today. So, we felt we need to document whether this approach works. We need to really invest in it and be very critical. So, we had to convince the women’s movement that this was not a risk. And I think it was successful, and we’re working with great male partners right now—but these male partners are still operating together with the women in a very patriarchal, militarist society.
The topic of engaging men in this agenda is something that people are starting to look at. The question is, will people also look at the whole issue of how violence on a global scale and a state level is also gendered? That is the toughest question to answer, because a lot of interests are there. It’s very political to ask that question. So, I think for now, that would be the biggest challenge.
AOS: WPP has trained hundreds of peace leaders around the world. What are the challenges in conducting these trainings while ensuring that the messages are brought into local communities and do trainings for men or women raise different obstacles?
IG: It all starts [with] being very clear for yourself, where do you want to go. So if you’re a women’s organization, I think women’s organizations all over the world experience the same challenge, which is funding. So, we do not have funding for training 500 people. We usually have trainings where we have 20 people. It’s selecting those people who can be really multipliers. And also selecting people who have already an understanding and carry a commitment towards what the training will be about—so, having, at the same time, a similar level of knowledge, skills and commitment already from the start, and building on that. Of course, you sometimes bring different cultures together so that can raise quite some tensions, also, if they are countries that have conflict.
It starts with good preparation, really reflecting on your theory of change, and monitoring along the way. We put a lot of effort in doing a needs analysis beforehand. During the training, every day we do evaluation sessions. We constantly reflect with our trainees: Are we going where we want to go? Do we need to adjust it? And it helps in that sense that we have usually two-years programming, so that allows room for learning.
Differences between men and women? Not so much. I have to say, people come with their hearts, their minds, their skills. They come with commitment. There are difficult conversations, but usually people are quite constructive, and I’ve seen empowerment happen on both sides so… I think human beings tend to be quite alike if we give them the chance to be.
AOS: To finish up, the year 2015 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Security Council resolution 1325. In your view, what are the most critical steps that remain for implementation and bridging the divide between headquarters and the field?
IG: There are many, many critical steps. I think we are still facing a situation where we have now lots of paperwork; we have a lot of follow-up resolutions. Implementation is very difficult because I think we tend to look at change in a very instrumental way. We tend to want to make boxes that we can tick to add more women. But changing the cultures—I’m not just talking cultures in countries of conflict, but actually the cultures all over the world and in institutions that make decisions about war and peace. They haven’t fundamentally changed. So, you keep on explaining something, but people are hearing something completely different. In the end, 1325 I feel is about more than adding women. It’s about the practice and working towards ending wars. And that is about asking critical questions about patriarchy and the way we are dealing with violent conflict.
We still have quite some work to do to ask those big questions, and that’s why I really feel that there are different movements coming up right now, new movements coming up. They’re all asking critical questions in their own field. If they come together, they can create a more holistic picture and a different paradigm of what is gender-sensitive peacebuilding. I think 1325 has been able to put the issue on the agenda. It gives the activists something to refer to, and gives something to flag the issue to their governments. But the real implementation is still difficult, and there are many factors—knowledge, willingness, funding—they’re all part of it.
AOS: Isabelle, thanks so much for speaking to us today in the Global Observatory.
About the photo: Members of the Serbian Police Force during a presentation of the Draft National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in the Republic of Serbia, Belgrade, November 16, 2010. (OSCE/Milan Obradovic)